Anyone who enjoys good food knows about oregano. It’s the stuff that distinguishes fine Italian cuisine from Chef Boyardee’s Beefaroni. Although the genus Origanum
encompasses more than 50 species, most aficionados consider Origanum vulgare,
or Greek oregano, to be the “true” oregano. Some etymologists claim the word oregano
stems from the Greek origanon,
meaning “acrid herb.” Others prefer a more lyrical translation: “delight from the mountain.” (If you’ve ever strolled into a kitchen where there’s a pot of spaghetti sauce simmering on the stove, you’ll probably lean toward the lyrical interpretation.)
Oregano’s history as a culinary and medicinal herb stretches back into antiquity; people from the Mediterranean region, the Middle East, China, Mexico, Europe, and the Americas have included oregano in their diets or phyto-pharmacopeia. Oregano’s distinctive flavor and aroma derive from an amalgam of monoterpenes, sesquiterpenes, phenols and aromatic hydrocarbons. Among the herb’s more important constituents are carvacrol, thymol, and eugenol (phenols); pinene, limonene, and sabinene (monoterpenes); and caryophyllene (a sesquiterpene). These compounds, among others, also account for oregano’s antibacterial, antifungal, antioxidant, antispasmodic, carminative, diaphoretic and analgesic properties
– properties that were exploited by the ancients but have largely been overshadowed by the herb’s gustatory attributes.(1) However, as valuable as oregano is in the kitchen, it has recently enjoyed a renascence among scientists from disciplines as disparate as human and veterinary medicine, pest control, and food and archival document preservation.
In an age of increasing bacterial resistance to antibiotics, researchers are looking to phytochemicals in the hope of discovering alternatives for dealing with potentially lethal infections. A number of studies have demonstrated oregano’s activity against a wide array of bacteria, including many, such as Staph aureus, E. coli, and Bacillus cereus, that play prominent roles in human disease. (2, 3) In 2013, scientists at India’s Guru Jambheshwer University of Science and Technology demonstrated that oregano oil, when combined with the antibiotic ciprofloxacin, not only intensified the antibiotic’s ability to eradicate multidrug-resistant Salmonella typhi
(the organism that causes typhoid fever), but may allow patients to be treated with lower, less toxic doses of the drug. (4)
Viruses, which do not respond to antibiotics, are a major cause of human disease. While antiviral drugs are available for some pathogens, many viral illnesses simply have to run their course because no effective treatment is available. In 2011, a team of investigators at Brazil’s Universidade Federal de Santa Maria showed that carvacrol, one of oregano’s principal constituents, exerts antiviral activity against herpes simplex virus type 1 (including acyclovir-resistant strains), human rotavirus, and respiratory syncytial virus. (5) Oregano’s essential oil also inactivates yellow fever virus in vitro.
(6) It isn’t clear how such studies will ultimately impact human health, but the observation that oregano exhibits antiviral activity at relatively low concentrations suggests that many viral infections may respond to orally or topically administered oregano preparations.
One of the oldest applications for herbs is in food preservation. Indeed, it is likely that early humans learned to appreciate the flavoring properties of herbs only after they had discovered how these plants retarded spoilage in valuable foodstuffs. In 2014, a team of scientists in Belgium found that the essential oils of several herbs, including oregano, inhibited the growth of common food spoilage bacteria, such as Brochothrix thermosphacta
and Pseudomonas fluorescens. Moreover, the growth of several bacteria responsible for food-borne illnesses – S. typhimurium, Listeria monocytogenes, and enterohemorrhagic E. coli, for example – was suppressed by oregano oil. (7)
Nowadays, since most data is stored electronically, people give little thought to the need for document preservation. However, protecting historical documents and archives that have not been converted to electronic formats is of utmost concern. While controlling the environment around such documents is the most important means of preventing their degradation, floods, power outages, and other catastrophes can negate all efforts at environmental modification. In 2012, experts at the National Archive of the Republic of Cuba showed that oregano oil, when used as a vapor or when combined with a solvent, prevents the growth of bacteria and fungi that contribute to biodeterioration in valuable archived documents. (8)
Finally, it is important to remember that essential oils, as valuable as they may be to the human condition, are intended to serve the plants that synthesize them. The alchemy that spawns an essential oil and determines its composition is orchestrated by evolution and shaped by foraging insects, grazing animals, bacteria, fungi, viruses, soil conditions, and climate. Essential oils serve as a defense against diseases and predation, as an attractant for pollinating insects, as a deterrent to neighboring plants, or even as a means for manipulating the environment to the plants’ advantage. In the July 2015 edition of Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences,
European scientists elucidated the complex relationship among Origanum vulgare
ants (which have developed a tolerance for oregano’s oil), and Maculinea arion
(a large blue butterfly whose larvae initially feed on oregano flowers but then drop into the soil to prey on ants). When oregano plants are stressed by Myrmica
ants feeding upon their roots, they emit higher levels of carvacrol into the surrounding air. The carvacrol attracts gravid female butterflies, which lay a larger proportion of their eggs on those plants where more ants can be found, thereby ensuring an adequate food supply for the growing butterfly larvae. (9)
Human perspectives seem so much less relevant when compared to the intricacies of nature. References
1. De Falco E, Mancini E, Roscigno G, et al. Chemical composition and biological activity of essential oils of Origanum vulgare
L. subsp. vulgare
L. under different growth conditions. Molceules.
2. Saeed S, Tariq P. Antibacterial activity of oregano (Origanum vulgare
Linn.) against gram positive bacteria. Pak J Pharm Sci
3. Si H, Hu J, Liu Z, Zeng ZL. Antibacterial effect of oregano essential oil alone and in combination with antibiotics against extended-spectrum beta-lactamase-producing Escherichia coli. FEMS Immunol Med Microbiol
4. Bharti V, Vasudeva N, Sharma S, Duhan JS. Antibacterial activities of Origanum vulgare
alone and in combination with different antimicrobials against clinical isolates of Salmonella typhi
. Anc Sci Life.
5. Pilau MR, Alves SH, Weiblen R, et al. Antiviral activity of the Lippia graveolens (Mexican oregano) essential oil and its main compound carvacrol against human and animal viruses. Braz J Microbiol.
6. Meneses R, Ocazionez RE, Martínez JR, Stashenko EE. Inhibitory effect of essential oils obtained from plants grown in Colombia on yellow fever virus replication in vitro. Ann Clin Microbiol Antimicrob.
2009 Mar 6;8:8
7. Mith H, Duré Rémi, Delcenserie V, et al. Antimicrobial activities of commercial essential oils and their components against food-borne pathogens and food spoilage bacteria. Food Sci Nutr
8. Borrego S, Valdés O, Vivar I, et al. Essential oils of plants as biocides against microorganisms isolated from Cuban and Argentine documentary heritage. ISRN Microbiol
9. Patricelli D, Barbero F, Occhipinti A, et al. Plant defences against ants provide a pathway to social parasitism in butterflies. Proc Biol Sci
. 2015 Jul 22; 282(1811): 20151111
It’s one of those plants that seems to thrive on neglect. Tucked away in an unfrequented corner of the garden, lemon balm (Melissa officinalis
) will happily unfurl its corrugated leaves and patiently wait for the brush of a hand to release its ethereal, citrusy fragrance. In midsummer, lemon balm’s unassuming, nectar-laden flowers will draw hordes of pollinating honeybees to the surrounding landscape. Indeed, the name “Melissa” is derived from the Greek word for honeybee: according to Greek mythology, Melissa, one of several nymphs who nurtured the infant Zeus, fed the fledgling god honey in lieu of milk. And it was Melissa who helped turn men from their primitive, cannibalistic state by teaching them how to collect and use honey.
A member of the mint family, lemon balm exhibits many of the group’s traits, such as squared-off stems, opposing leaves, unassuming blossoms and a bouquet of aromatic essential oils. However, whereas most mints’ redolence derives from pungent menthols, menthones and carvones, lemon balm’s aroma and flavor arise from geraniol, linalool and citronellal. Lemon balm is characterized by a more sedate demeanor, too: unlike many mints that spread aggressively via subterranean rhizomes, Melissa
tends to stay put—though it may self-seed in favorable locations.
At least three millennia ago, lemon balm was known to Tibetan monks, who burned it as incense to promote tranquility. In the Middle Ages, Charlemagne decreed that lemon balm be planted in monastery gardens, where it could be readily harvested and used to “reduce stress and anxiety, promote sleep, improve appetite, and ease pain and discomfort from indigestion (including gas and bloating, as well as colic).”1 Even before Charlemagne’s time, lemon balm was steeped in wine to banish depression, and it was applied topically to heal abrasions, cuts, bruises and contusions and to soothe the bites and stings of insects.
In addition to its essential oils, M. officinalis
is a repository for monoterpenoids, flavonoids (quercitin, rhamnetin, apigenin and luteolin), polyphenolic compounds (rosmarinic acid, caffeic acid and protocatechuic acid), hydroxycinnamic acid, triterpenes (ursolic and oleanolic acids), sesquiterpenes and tannins.2 While nature designed these compounds to defend lemon balm from infectious microorganisms, foraging insects and grazing vertebrates, many of them exert beneficial pharmacological effects in humans, too. Anti-Anxiety and Sedative Properties
One of the most popular and enduring uses for lemon balm is as a soothing tea. Anyone who has enjoyed a draught of infused Melissa
leaves might simply ascribe its calming effects to the distinctive lemony ambiance hovering above the cup. (After all, who would deny lemon balm’s aromatherapeutic potency?) However, several of the plant’s less volatile chemical constituents are known to possess anxiolytic and sedative properties, as well.
In 2010, French researchers working with 20 stressed but otherwise healthy adults showed that a standardized extract of M.
officinalis (Cyracos®) relieved anxiety or insomnia within two weeks in up to 95 percent of the test subjects. Seventy percent reported full remission for both symptoms. The authors of the study reported that Melissa’s
salutary influence on anxiety and insomnia were most likely due to its ability to inhibit the breakdown of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is a calming neurotransmitter.3
Other investigators have attributed lemon balm’s neuropsychiatric benefits to its modulation of acetylcholine receptors within the human central nervous system.4 In clinical trials, M. officinalis
has been shown to benefit patients with Alzheimer’s disease, which is characterized by decreased cholinergic activity. In 2003, a double-blinded, multicenter trial involving 42 patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s demonstrated preserved cognition and reduced agitation in the subjects taking lemon balm extract.5 Antiviral Activity
Lemon balm is widely known for its antiviral properties, which have been exploited by native healers and herbalists for generations. In vitro studies of M. officinalis
extracts reveal its activity against a number of human pathogens, including herpes simplex viruses, influenza A, parainfluenza, mumps, HIV and vaccinia (a smallpox-like virus).6,7
The antiviral properties of lemon balm are believed to reside in its phenols, with rosmarinic acid being one of the more active compounds. Viral attachment, cellular penetration and replication all appear to be inhibited by aqueous extracts of M. officinalis, which in some cases slows the replication of drug-resistant viruses.8 Smooth Muscle Relaxation
has been used to promote digestion and relieve gas and the griping abdominal pain associated with intestinal hypermotility. In tissue culture studies, extracts of lemon balm leaves have demonstrated antispasmodic activity in histamine-stimulated smooth muscles of guinea-pig intestine and trachea. Melissa’s
smooth muscle-relaxing properties are often exploited by women who suffer from dysmenorrhea (menstrual cramps).
The German Commission E Monograph cites Melissa
as a treatment for functional gastrointestinal complaints, digestive spasm and “flatulent dyspepsia.”6 Lemon balm’s carminative properties could prove useful for alleviating the symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome or the persistent queasiness, irregularity and discomfort that sometimes follows a bout of viral gastroenteritis. Antioxidant Properties
Medicinal plants are a major source of antioxidants, and Melissa
is no exception. The phenols and flavonoids found in lemon balm leaves—rosmarinic acid, apigenin and caffeic acid, to name a few—are known to exert potent free radical scavenging activities at levels that are attainable in plasma and tissue.9 In vitro
and animal studies suggest that Melissa’s
antioxidant properties could make it valuable in any number of clinical situations. One investigation, for example, showed that lemon balm’s antioxidant constituents exerted a protective effect on the livers of rats that had been administered high doses of atorvastatin, a drug used to treat high cholesterol in humans.10 Safety and Dosing
Like many herbs, lemon balm has not been well studied in pregnant or nursing women. Thus, it should only be used in these settings under the supervision of a healthcare professional. As with all botanical preparations, some people may be allergic to lemon balm. Discontinue use if signs of allergy occur (difficulty breathing, rash, itching, etc.).
Lemon balm may interact with other herbs or medications, particularly those that cause drowsiness. Individuals who take sedatives, pain medications or antidepressants should check with their doctors before using lemon balm. Some concerns have been raised that lemon balm could interact with anti-HIV drugs; people taking antiretroviral drugs should consult their physicians prior to taking any preparation containing M. officinalis
Dosing recommendations for lemon balm differ with the preparation used and the condition being addressed. For sleeping difficulties or to reduce indigestion, flatulence, cramping or bloating, the following doses are suggestions:
- Capsules: 300-500 mg 2-3 times daily; adjust dosage as needed
- Tea (infusion of dried leaves): 2-5 grams (about ½ to 1 tsp) steeped in 1 cup hot water. Drink up to 4 times daily
- Tincture: 30 to 45 drops 2-3 times daily
- Topical (cream): Apply to affected area 3-4 times daily
- For herpes (cold sores), steep 3-4 teaspoons of crushed Melissa leaves in boiling water for 10 minutes. Allow to cool. Use cotton balls to apply tea to cold sores as needed throughout the day
- University of Maryland Medical Center: Lemon Balm
- Basar SN, Zama R. An Overview of Badranjboya (Melissa officinalis). Int Res J Biol Sci. 2013;2(12):107-109
- Cases J, Ibarra A, Feuille`re N, et al. Pilot trial of Melissa ofﬁcinalis L. leaf extract in the treatment of volunteers suffering from mild-to-moderate anxiety disorders and sleep disturbances. Mediterr J Nutr Metab. 2011;4:211–21
- Wake G, Court J, Pickering A, et al. CNS acetylcholine receptor activity in European medicinal plants traditionally used to improve failing memory. J Ethnopharmacol. 2000;69(2):105-14
- Akhondzadeh S, Noroozian M, Mohammadi M, et al. Melissa officinalis extract in the treatment of patients with mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease: a double blind, randomised, placebo controlled trial. J Neurol Neurosurg Psychiatry. 2003;74:863-866
- Parameswari G, Meenatchisundaram S, Subbraj T, et al. Note on pharmacological activities of Melissa officinalis L. Ethnobotanical Leaflets. 2009;13: 211-12
- Geuenich S, Goffinet C, Venzke S, et al. Aqueous extracts from peppermint, sage and le
- Astani A, Heidary Navid M, Schnitzler P. Attachment and penetration of acyclovir-resistant herpes simplex virus are inhibited by Melissa officinalis extract. Phytother Res. 2014 May 12
- Mimica-Dukic M, Bozin B, Sokovic M, et al. Antimicrobial and antioxidant activities of Melissa officinalis L. (Lamiaceae) essential oil. J Agric Food Chem. 2004;52(9):2485–2489
- Zarei A, Changizi Ashtiyani S, Taheri S, Rasekh F. Comparison between effects of different doses of Melissa officinalis and atorvastatin on the activity of liver enzymes in hypercholesterolemia rat. Avicenna J Phytomed. 2014;4(1):15-23
More scientific attention has been devoted to turmeric (Curcuma longa) than practically any other plant on Earth. Thousands of studies describing turmeric’s phytochemical and pharmacologic properties can be found in the literature, and researchers are still actively investigating its attributes. A member of the ginger family, turmeric has been known to Ayurvedic physicians for thousands of years, and it was undoubtedly used as a spice, food preservative and coloring agent long before it was ever exploited as a medicine.
Among the many pharmacologically active compounds found in turmeric, the curcuminoids—curcumin, demethoxycurcumin and bis-demethoxycurcumin—stand out as the most important. Of these, curcumin is the most abundant and the best studied. Over 100 molecular targets of curcumin have already been identified, and more will almost certainly be discovered. Nuclear factor kappa-B, cyclooxygenases, matrix metalloproteinases and many other pro-inflammatory mediators are inhibited by curcumin. These mediators are involved in the genesis and progression of most chronic human diseases, including diabetes, arthritis, cardiovascular disease, autoimmune conditions and cancer. Conversely, curcumin stimulates or up-regulates other mediators that reduce inflammation, alleviate oxidative stress or exert anticancer effects, such as Nrf-2 and heme oxygenase-1.
It’s no wonder some experts call turmeric (more specifically, curcumin) the “herbal panacea.” Few plants can boast such wide-ranging and seemingly universally salutary properties. Indeed, if all of the scientific data pertaining to this compound is to be believed, curcumin could be used to lower cholesterol levels, knock out inflammation, confer protection against infectious diseases, slow or prevent the development of dementia, ameliorate the impact of strokes and heart attacks and even prevent or treat cancer.
Unfortunately, the wellspring of curcumin’s diverse and near-miraculous physiologic properties--namely, its chemical structure--just happens to be its principal weakness. Curcumin is a polyphenolic, bis-α,β-unsaturated ketone that exists in equilibrium with its enol form in aqueous solutions and living tissue (see diagram below). Like many other plant-based polyphenols—catechins, tannins and ellagic acid, for example—native curcumin is poorly absorbed from the mammalian intestine. While curcumin’s limited absorption never stopped the Ayurvedics from recommending turmeric, it does cause headaches for scientists who want to demonstrate a connection between serum or tissue levels of curcumin and its purported health benefits. And this issue has been a particularly stubborn obstacle for the ever-avaricious pharmaceutical companies who recognize curcumin’s potential but have not yet developed derivatives possessing both clinical efficacy and high bioavailability.
Curcumin: One Shifty Molecule
Oddly enough, the supplement industry may be ahead of Big Pharma on this one. Since supplement manufacturers don’t make their money by manipulating natural molecules and patenting the altered offspring, they’ve only needed to develop methodologies that improve native curcumin’s delivery to the bloodstream. (It should be stated here that simply ingesting curcumin with a bit of dietary fat will improve its absorption to some degree.) Very early on, scientists discovered that when curcumin is combined with piperine—the chemical that gives black pepper its pungency—its bioavailability improves by as much as 154%. Hence, a piperine-curcumin combination is as near as your favorite retail supplement outlet. However, some consumers’ stomachs don’t tolerate piperine very well, and bumping absorption 1 ½ times isn’t really all that impressive, so supplement purveyors have devised other approaches.
One innovative manufacturer complexes curcumin with plant-based phosphatidylcholine to create microscopic, spherical “micelles” that chaperone curcumin across the intestinal barrier and into the bloodstream and tissues. (Phosphatidylcholine is a molecule that is naturally found within the cell membranes of both plants and animals.) These micelles, which are called Phytosomes®, improve curcumin absorption by nearly 30 times. Liposomal formulations composed of lipid bilayers surrounding a central repository of curcumin exploit the same concept as Phytosomes®. Other preparations combine micronized curcumin with essential oils from turmeric; still others deliver curcumin to the tissues in nanoparticulate vehicles.
Not surprisingly, there’s a lot of squabbling about whose curcumin formulation offers the best bioavailability and therapeutic efficacy. (Supplement makers are no different than Big Pharma in this regard: they all want to get a leg up on the competition.) Until the current industry-wide allegations of “fuzzy math” and “poor science” subside and this question is answered definitively, it’s a safe bet that any curcumin preparation that improves absorption without upsetting a person’s stomach is at least better than a raw extract.
As for the amount of curcumin one must consume in order to reap its protective benefits or address any particular health problem, this, too, is a matter for debate. Human studies have employed doses ranging from 500 to 12,000 mg daily with no evidence of toxicity; gastrointestinal distress (stomach pain or diarrhea) is the most common side effect seen in subjects taking high doses. Rare reports of stomach inflammation and ulcers have been linked to higher doses, as well. More bioavailable preparations will alleviate such problems, as lower doses can be used to attain equal or superior benefits in comparison to raw extracts. It’s prudent to follow label directions when taking a curcumin supplement.
While phytotherapeutic agents frequently interact with each other and with prescription medications, curcumin is remarkably free of serious herb-herb or herb-drug interactions. However, as with any other pharmacologically active substance, curcumin should not be consumed with utter impunity. Since curcumin inhibits cyclooxygenases, it may interfere with platelet function; anyone taking anticoagulants along with curcumin could be at increased risk for bleeding. In addition, some studies suggest that curcumin may interfere with the actions of certain chemotherapeutic agents, while others demonstrate curcumin’s ability to enhance the effects of both radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Therefore, patients receiving chemotherapy should always check with their physicians before taking curcumin.
Since curcumin improves biliary clearance, people with gallstones or gallbladder disease should check with their healthcare providers before taking any supplements containing turmeric or curcumin. Finally, curcumin’s safety during pregnancy has not been evaluated; until more is known about curcumin’s effects on fetal development or pregnancy outcomes, it should only be used during pregnancy when the anticipated benefits clearly outweigh any risks.
- Cuomo J, Appendino G, Dern AS, et al. Comparative absorption of a standardized curcuminoid mixture and its lecithin formulation. J Nat Prod. 2011 Apr 25;74(4):664-9
- Zhou H, Beevers CS, Huang S. The targets of curcumin. Curr Drug Targets. 2011 Mar 1;12(3):332-47
- Goel A, Aggarwal BB. Curcumin, the golden spice from Indian saffron, is a chemosensitizer and radiosensitizer for tumors and chemoprotector and radioprotector for normal organs. Nutr Cancer. 2010;62 7):919-30
In a world seemingly determined to wind up our springs and set us down to scurry about our appointed tasks, it would be nice to find an herb that could ease our daily angst without hammering us into oblivion or making us see things that aren’t really there.
Enter the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica)
. This radiant, four-petaled emblem of The Golden State has a long and respected history as a nervine
and sedative. California poppies grow up to two feet tall, but their thin stems and deeply divided, pinnate leaves tend to sprawl a bit. The plant's native range includes every western state except Montana; it is widely cultivated elsewhere. California poppies grow in distubed sites, across open grasslands and on sunny hillsides. The delicate, orange-red blossoms shed their petals soon after flowering, leaving long, tubular seed pods that explode delightfully when they mature (or when they're sharply tapped by a marauding herbalist).
Although it’s in the same family as the potent Oriental poppy (Papaver somniferous
), California poppy’s active ingredients are isoquinolone alkaloids, rather than opioids. Principal among these compounds is californidine, which is pleasantly sedating but not disorienting; furthermore, long-term use of californidine doesn’t lead to physiologic dependence or addiction. In low doses, California poppy is a mild relaxant; in higher doses, it induces sleep. The tradition of giving California poppy to restless babies attests to the herb’s gentle nature. Like its narcotic cousin, California poppy has pain-relieving properties, too.
The medicinal properties of California poppy are found throughout the plant. Most herbalists collect the aerial parts when the plant is in flower and dry them for several weeks. (Fresh plants contain cyanogenic glycosides, which are toxic when ingested in large quantities.) Native Americans also employed the mashed roots, from which they extracted the juice to treat stomachaches, tuberculosis and skin wounds, and which they served to gaming companions to gain a competitive edge. The Pomo Indians rubbed mashed seedpods or decoctions on nursing mothers’ breasts to dry up their milk; other tribes used flower infusions and decoctions to treat head lice and toothaches. Infusions
, tinctures, decoctions and poultices derived from California poppy have all found favor among healers from various cultures.
In more “modern” times, California poppy has been used, either alone or in combination with other herbs, to treat restless legs syndrome, ADHD in children, bedwetting, insomnia, anxiety disorders, back pain, seasonal affective disorder, headaches, agitated depression and peripheral neuropathy.
An infusion of California poppy can be prepared by steeping about 1/4 ounce of herb in 6 to 8 ounces of boiling water. Drink 3 to 4 cups daily as needed. Decoctions are prepared by simmering 1/4 to 1/2 ounce of herb in one cup of water until one-half of the volume remains. When using water or alcohol extracts of California poppy for nervousness, add 30 to 60 drops (1 to 2 ml) to a cup of water or juice. As a sleep aid, drink a cup of the infusion or use 60 to 90 drops of extract in two tablespoons of water about 1/2 hour before bedtime. (Therapeutic efficacy for any of the abovementioned disorders has not been documented in scientific trials, so – as always – readers are cautioned about relying on empirical or traditional evidence to treat medical conditions. Pregnant women should not use California poppy, as it may stimulate uterine contractions.) Sources
1. Physicians’ Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines, 2nd Edition: California Poppy. Thomas Fleming, PharmD, Chief Editor. 2000
2. Prescription for Herbal Healing: California Poppy. Phyllis A. Balch, CNC. 2002
3. Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs: California Poppy. Steven Foster and Christopher Hobbs. 2002
Have you ever walked out of your doctor’s office with a prescription in your hand without really knowing what it was for? Has your mind ever wandered away from a gathering as your medically oriented acquaintances conversed in phrases that were completely foreign to you?
It seems that practitioners of health-related disciplines insulate themselves with jargon that “laypersons” just can’t fathom. This probably dates back to the days when we entrusted our physical and mental health – if not our very lives – to alchemists, shamans and magicians, who camouflaged their craft in unintelligible language in order to secure their positions in their clans, tribes or villages.
Well, herbalists are no different. Try discussing the virtues of your favorite herbal tea with your local herb purveyor, and you’ll probably hear terms like “carminative” and “demulcent.” Unless you’re up on your herbal vocabulary, you’ll walk away wondering what that
was all about.
Here, then, is a brief primer on those unfamiliar terms that tumble freely from the tongues of herbalists but seem to stick in the ears of the uninitiated. Keep in mind that these terms aren’t really intended to obfuscate; rather, they’re a convenient and consistent way to describe specific characteristics that have made herbs so valuable to humans through the ages. It’s also important to remember that most herbs possess multiple characteristics, making them useful for more than one condition – in contrast to prescription medications, which are typically designed to target a specific physiologic process.
Analgesics: Any substance that reduces pain, either by relieving muscle spasms, reducing inflammation or directly affecting the nerves that carry pain impulses. Examples include cramp bark, dong quai, lobelia, chamomile, poppy and kava kava.
Antacids: Herbs that neutralize stomach acid or counteract the effects of excess acid in the gastrointestinal tract. Fennel, dandelion, slippery elm, Irish moss, kelp and licorice are all natural antacids.
Anti-abortives: Women who have a history of spontaneous abortions often seek the help of an herbalist in the hope that herbs will prevent miscarriage and allow them to carry their pregnancies to term. Herbs that are attributed with anti-abortive properties include red raspberry, cramp bark, lobelia and false unicorn root. Supposedly, these agents won’t prevent “inevitable” miscarriages, such as those due to genetic anomalies.
Anti-asthmatics: Herbs that have traditionally shown benefit for treating asthma. Some, such as lobelia, purportedly prevent bronchospasm and dilate the airways. Others reduce airway inflammation and break up mucous plugs. Some anti-asthmatic herbs are smoked to get their active ingredients into the lungs quickly. (This practice should be approached with extreme caution, as introducing any
combustible material into the lungs of an asthmatic could do more harm than good.) Lobelia, yerba santa, coltsfoot, pleurisy root, mullein, wild yam, comfrey, elecampane and wild cherry bark are examples of anti-asthmatics.
Antibiotics: A plethora of herbs are known to inhibit the growth and replication of bacteria, fungi and other microorganisms. Since plants are stationary and cannot avoid exposure to infectious agents, they have developed defense mechanisms – often essential oils – that ward off pathogens. Garlic, thyme, juniper berries, buchu, cedar, chaparral, echinacea, goldenseal, myrrh, eucalyptus and grapefruit seed extract are representative examples of herbal antibiotics.
Anti-catarrhals: Catarrh is a medical term for excess mucous (phlegm). Many viral illnesses are associated with “catarrhal phases,” during which mucous production is the prominent (and sometimes overwhelming) symptom. Black pepper, cayenne, ginger, sage, cinnamon, gotu kola, mullein, comfrey, yerba santa and wild cherry bark possess anti-catarrhal properties.
Antipyretics: “Pyresis” (meaning “fire”) refers to the fever that accompanies most infectious processes (colds, bacterial infections, etc.) and many inflammatory disorders (e.g., lupus or rheumatoid arthritis). Herbs that prevent or reduce fevers or that are generally cooling in character include alfalfa, boneset, basil, skullcap, gotu kola, chickweed and seaweed. Willow, which is rich in salicylic acid, was the original source for one of our most effective antipyretics, aspirin.
Antiseptics: Much like antibiotics, antiseptics prevent the replication of bacteria, fungi and viruses. The term “antiseptic” is usually applied to an agent that is applied externally to prevent bacterial growth. While many antiseptic herbs can be taken internally, some should only be used on the skin. Goldenseal, chaparral, calendula, and a variety of essential oils (thyme, garlic, pine, juniper, sage, etc.) make good antiseptics.
Antispasmodics: Herbs that reduce or prevent muscle spasms, whether they’re in skeletal muscle or in the smooth muscles of the body (GI tract, airways, urogenital tract, etc.). Antispasmodics are included in many herbal formulas, as they allow afflicted individuals to relax and direct their energies toward healing. Dong quai, black cohosh, blue cohosh, chamomile, valerian, skullcap, kava kava and thyme possess antispasmodic properties.
Aphrodisiacs: Like the fabled unicorn, most herbs that reputedly improve sexual potency and boost libido are the product of fancy, rather than fact. Nonetheless, those that have found favor among herbalists include damiana, false unicorn (no irony there!), ginseng, angelica, astragalus, kava kava, burdock and yohimbine.
Astringents: Any agent that tends to shrink or constrict living tissue. This is a particularly important herbal property, as it has so many applications in human illness. Astringents slow bleeding, reduce swelling and decrease secretions. For the most part, herbs’ astringent properties stem from tannins, which are found in most plants but are particularly concentrated in barks, roots and nuts. Bayberry, oak, witch hazel, wild cherry, blackberry
, uva ursi, rhubarb and yarrow are all excellent astringents.
Carminatives: Herbs and spices that reduce intestinal gas, bloating and cramping. Peppermint, fennel, anise, cumin, basil, ginger, dill and chamomile are carminatives.
Cholagogues: If you know that “chole” is a Greek root for “bile” or “gall,” you’ll understand why cholagogues are substances that promote the movement of bile from your gallbladder to your small intestine. A number of herbs possess this property, including aloe vera, barberry, Oregon grape, goldenseal, licorice and dandelion
root. (People with gallstones or liver problems should use cholagogues with care, as these herbs can precipitate a gallbladder attack.)
Demulcents: Herbs that soothe or protect inflamed mucous membranes, usually by coating them with mucilage. Marshmallow, comfrey leaf, Irish moss, slippery elm, chickweed, licorice, psyllium, flax, aloe vera, chia seeds, mullein and fenugreek are good demulcents.
Diaphoretics: These sweat-inducing herbs can be invaluable during febrile illnesses; they’re also frequently used before and during ceremonial sweats. Diaphoretic herbs are often administered in hot infusions, as this further promotes sweating. Lemon balm, catnip, ginger, cayenne, elder flowers, yarrow flowers, peppermint, blessed thistle and hyssop are valuable diaphoretics.
Diuretics: Herbs that are used to promote the flow of urine. This is beneficial for people with fluid retention and edema, obesity, bladder infections (which should also be treated with antibiotics) and other conditions where excess fluid is problematic or where increased urinary flow would be useful. Diuretics are often combined with cholagogues and tonics (see below) in “detoxification” formulas. Agrimony, parsley, horsetail, dandelion leaf, buchu, juniper and nettles are popular diuretics.
Emetics: Agents that induce vomiting and empty the stomach. Ipecac is the herbal emetic that is familiar to most people. Lobelia, elecampane, blessed thistle, black mustard seed and bayberry are additional examples. (When used in low doses, many of these herbs do not induce vomiting but have other salutary effects on the body.)
Emmenagogues: Herbs that promote menstrual flow and help regulate irregular cycles. Because emmenagogues can stimulate uterine contractions, they have been used in the past to induce abortions. This is an extremely dangerous practice, as these herbs can exert other toxic effects when they’re taken in doses high enough to evacuate the uterus. Emmenagogues should not be used during pregnancy or when a woman is trying to conceive. Pennyroyal, juniper berries, black cohosh, rue, angelica and wild ginger are emmenagogues.
Emollients: Compounds that smooth, moisten and soothe the skin. Herbal oils (almond, sesame, apricot, wheat germ, etc.) or herbs with high mucilage content (marshmallow, comfrey root, slippery elm, chickweed, etc.) make good emollients.
Expectorants: Herbs that liquefy mucous or promote its expulsion from the respiratory passages. Some of these herbs loosen mucous by virtue of their high mucilage content, while others stimulate the cilia that propel mucous along the airways. Examples include wild cherry bark, yerba santa, mullein, coltsfoot, horehound and anise.
Galtactogogues: As the name suggests, these are herbs that stimulate milk secretion, a property that can be helpful for a new mother whose milk hasn’t quite come in yet. Anise seed, blessed thistle, fennel, cumin and vervain are galactogogues.
Hemostatics: Any agent that slows or arrests active bleeding. Most hemostatics are potent astringents that shrink blood vessel walls, but they might also directly affect the coagulation process by acting on platelets or clotting proteins. Blackberry, goldenseal, horsetail, white oak bark, yellow dock and yarrow are effective hemostatics.
Laxatives: This one needs no explanation. Herbs that promote bowel activity include senna, aloe vera, Cascara sagrada and rhubarb. (When taken in large or repeated doses, these herbs are known as purgatives)
Lithotriptics: Herbs that help dissolve urinary and gallbladder stones or “gravel.” Gravel root, cleavers, parsley, dandelion, nettle and horsetail are used for dealing with kidney and bladder stones, while Cascara sagrada, Oregon grape root
, wild cherry bark and globe artichoke are used for gallstones.
Nervines: Agents that reduce tension and anxiety and promote healthy nervous system function. Valerian, skullcap, lobelia, and lady’s slipper are representative examples.
Oxytocics: Substances used to support or accelerate labor by stimulating uterine contractions. Oxytocic herbs have traditionally been employed by women whose due dates had passed or in whom labor had commenced but was progressing slowly. The use of oxytocics should be limited to situations where a midwife or other qualified individual is in attendance; using them inappropriately could result in placental abruption, fetal distress or other obstetrical complications. Angelica, black cohosh, blue cohosh, juniper berries, rue, uva ursi and wild ginger are oxytocics.
Parasiticides: Herbs that help eliminate parasites from the gastrointestinal tract or skin. Garlic, wormwood, thyme oil, rue, chaparral and pennyroyal are effective parasiticides; when taken internally, these agents should be used under the supervision of a knowledgeable practitioner, as they can be toxic if they’re misused.
Rubefacients: Herbs that increase blood flow to the skin wherever they’re applied, thereby inducing redness and warmth. The purpose of a rubefacient is to draw inflammation from deeper areas to the surface and remove “congestion” from underlying tissues. These herbs, which are frequently applied as poultices, are most commonly used for treating arthritis, sprains, strains and other joint problems. Examples include cayenne, black pepper, mustard seed oil, pine oil, thyme oil, cinnamon and eucalyptus.
Sedatives: Like nervines, sedatives calm the nerves; however, sedatives are more likely to promote drowsiness – although larger doses of nervines can be quite sedating, too. Hops, skullcap, kava kava, wood betony and passionflower are good sedatives.
Sialagogues: Herbs that promote salivation. This is useful for people who suffer from dry mouth or who have problems digesting starches. (Amylase, a starch-digesting enzyme, is found in abundance in human saliva.) Yerba santa, echinacea, black pepper, cayenne, ginger and licorice all help increase salivary flow.
Stimulants: In contrast to nerviness and sedatives, stimulants increase your energy levels, improve circulation and promote warmth. Many herbs possess stimulant properties, including cinnamon, cayenne, black pepper, anise, ginseng, ginger, astragalus, ephedra, sarsaparilla, onion, garlic and elecampane.
Tonics: Herbs that promote the function of a particular body part or organ system. (Most tonics, by nature, affect your entire body, even though they’re “targeted” to a particular system.) A few examples of tonics include hawthorn (heart), lobelia (nerves), gentian (stomach), parsley (urinary tract), Oregon grape root (gallbladder), dandelion root (liver) and ginseng (reproductive system).
Vulneraries: Herbs that improve wound healing by encouraging cell growth and tissue repair. Aloe vera is a well-known vulnerary; cayenne, comfrey, calendula, marshmallow and slippery elm are additional examples.
As you can see, there’s some overlap among herbal “classes” and properties, and many herbs possess a variety of useful characteristics. It can all get a little intimidating, but anyone who’s capable of reading can ferret out a given herb’s properties or learn what herbs are useful for a specific problem. That’s one of the innate beauties of herbalism: it isn’t limited to the astute, the arcane or even the educated. On the contrary, herbs are the “common man’s medicine,” and they’re often available within an arm’s reach of your back door.
As August mellows into autumn, the smell of ripening blackberries hangs in the air, prompting bicyclists to pause along highways, bucket-laden homemakers to head for the woods, and bears to amble along roadsides where the ebony morsels are within easy reach. Wild blackberries are native to Europe, Asia, North America and South America, but at least two millennia ago Europeans brought blackberries onto their homesteads and began cultivating them for food and medicine. As the prickled canes multiplied around their settlements, vulnerable rural dwellers discovered blackberry thickets were also quite useful for repelling marauders. (Inveterate blackberry pickers believe their torn hands and arms are the price one should pay to collect these delectable fruits. However, for the faint-of-heart who prefer to collect their berries close to home and who’d rather not leave a trail of blood and clothing fragments behind, many “thornless” cultivars are now available.)
Nutrients and Medicinal Constituents
Blackberries are a veritable storehouse of nutrients and pharmacologically active compounds. Delicious flavor aside, the nutrition packaged in a handful of berries explains why they’re such a valuable food source for wildlife: within the turgid skins of each berry (which is actually an aggregate fruit) you’ll find ample doses of vitamins A, C, E and K, iron, calcium, magnesium, manganese, potassium, zinc, protein and fiber.
Anthocyanins, the pigments that give blackberries their rich, inky color, are potent antioxidants. Blackberries are also a good source of salicylic acid, an anti-inflammatory with proven painkilling abilities (think “aspirin”). The tannins in blackberry leaves are powerful astringents; one of them, ellagitannin, is converted to ellagic acid in the human body. Research has demonstrated that ellagic acid possesses both antioxidant and anti-proliferative (anti-tumor) properties.
While blackberries’ constituents probably confer several long-term benefits (e.g., protection from heart disease and cancer), the astringent substances found in the plants’ leaves, stems and roots are responsible for their immediate and obvious effects. Blackberry root tea has been used for treating diarrhea, dysentery, stomach pain, cough, hemorrhoids and oral ulcers. The German Commission E approves blackberry leaf tea for diarrhea and inflammation of the mouth and throat. Externally, leaf tea is useful for boils, sores and ulcers. (Soak a clean cloth with warm tea and use as a poultice.) Traditionally, blackberry infusions, teas and decoctions have been employed to treat gonorrhea, excessive menstrual bleeding, whooping cough, “dropsy,” and labor pains.
When collecting blackberries or blackberry plants, wear some stout gloves (preferably a pair that covers your forearms) and carry a pair of bypass hand shears to cut your way to the prime berries – which always seem to be tucked behind a forbidding wall of heavily prickled canes.
And keep an eye out for bears, who always get their choice of picking spots!
Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs. Steven Foster and Christopher Hobbs. 2002
Physicians’ Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines, Second Edition. Thomas Fleming, PharmD, Chief Editor. 2000
Indian Herbalogy of North America. Alma R Hutchens. 1973
If you’ve ever retreated from the heat of a blistering day, pried the cap from a frosted bottle of beer, and reveled in that first long, slightly bitter, thirst-vanquishing draught, you are acquainted with Humulus lupulus,
or hops. Since ancient times, hops have been tossed into fermented beverages to improve their flavor and prolong their shelf life. The first brewers relied on wild hops for their raw material; however, given humankind’s proclivity to inebriation, a thriving industry now revolves around hop cultivation and propagation.
It isn’t clear where the word “hops” originated. It may stem from the Anglo-Saxon term “hoppian,” meaning “to leap” – perhaps referring to the plant’s prodigious ability to creep and twine and intercalate itself onto and into any available upright structure. Hops owes this climbing prowess to its aggressive, mercurial growth habit (under ideal conditions a hop vine can add a meter to its length in one day) and to its rasp-like stems and tendrils. These characteristics reportedly earned the plant its specific name, lupulus
: the early Romans, upon observing wild hops’ unbridled subjugation of willows and other scrub plants, were reminded of wolves among sheep and dubbed this “wicked and pernicious weed” lupus salictarius
The bittering and preservative attributes of hops reside in their strobiles – the flowers of the female vine – which resemble small, pale-green, soft-sided pinecones. Hop strobiles are the repository for an impressive number of nutritional and pharmacologically active agents, including vitamin B6, manganese, choline, inositol, antioxidant flavonoids, tannins, alpha- and beta-bitter acids (humulone, lupulone, etc.), volatile compounds (humulene, myrcene, beta-caryophyllene, etc.), resins, oligomeric proanthocyanidins, and phenols (e.g., caffeic and chlorogenic acids). Many of these constituents give rise to hops’ diverse medicinal properties: anodyne (relieves pain), diuretic, febrifuge (breaks fevers), hypnotic, nervine (relaxes jangled nerves), sedative, soporific (induces sleep), tonic, anthelmintic (kills worms), anaphrodisiac (reduces libido) and stomachic (improves appetite and digestion).
Traditionally, hops have been used internally for a wide array of ailments, including headache, earache, toothache, muscular pain, arthritis, jaundice, worms, stomach ulcers, gonorrhea, poor circulation, poor appetite, gout, fluid retention and coughs. Hops’ bitter acids exert selective antibacterial and antifungal activities, a serendipitous characteristic that presumably enhances yeast multiplication while simultaneously suppressing the growth of undesirable microbes in brewing vats. This same attribute makes hops invaluable in poultices for ringworm, wounds and skin ulcers (particularly venous stasis ulcers of the lower extremities).
Where hops excel, however, is in calming jittery nerves and encouraging sleep. Indeed, the German Commission E has approved hops for treating nervousness and insomnia. If you’re an intractable insomniac who’s largely impervious to valerian, skullcap, passionflower, lavender, chamomile or kava kava, hops may be just what you need. A cup of hop tea or 1 to 2 ml of hop tincture or extract in a cup of warm water before bedtime can induce sleep when nothing else works. (If you can’t abide the bitter taste of hop tea, a hop-stuffed pillow is a popular folk remedy for insomnia.)
Hops are a delicate, evanescent herb, so use fresh or well-preserved strobiles when preparing infusions and tinctures. If the strobiles in your favorite herbalist’s bins are brown, look elsewhere. The same precaution applies to pellets, if you buy your hops in that form. (Freezing or vacuum packing your fresh or pelleted hops will significantly prolong their usefulness.)
If you suffer from depression, use hops with caution; their calming effect could conceivably worsen your condition. If hops are used in excess, their estrogenic effects could suppress the male libido…although you wouldn’t guess it from observing the behavior of beer drinkers at a bar. As with all herbs, hops can be sensitizing for certain individuals. (Hop picker’s disease, a severe form of contact dermatitis caused by continuous exposure to hops’ abrasive stems and strobiles, is one example of a sensitivity reaction.)
If you’re interested in growing your own hops for brewing or medicinal use, this link
provides some good general information.
To your good health. Skoal! Sources
Physicians’ Desk Reference for Herbal Medicines, 2nd Edition: Hops. Thomas Fleming, PharmD, Chief Editor. 2000
Back in the mid-1970s, while hawking a popular breakfast cereal on TV, Euell Gibbons uttered a phrase that secured his place as a consummate wild-food expert and launched an entire generation of would-be foragers and simplers:
“Ever eat a pine tree? Many parts are edible.”
I can’t say I’ve dined on many conifers – although I’ve downed my share of pine-nut stew and absorbed a bottle or two of spruce-tip beer – so I can’t confirm whether it’s possible (or even desirable) to satisfy your appetite with pine parts. However, I can
attest to the medicinal value of the family Pinaceae,
which includes pines, cedars, hemlocks, larches, spruces and firs.
During my brief stint as a timber faller, I learned that dried, powdered pitch provides excellent hemostasis for lacerations, and I once chewed and swallowed a few Ponderosa pine needles to relieve a nasty case of heartburn. (It’s amazing what you’ll do when you’re grubbing out a fire line and the volcanic remains of an army-surplus C-ration are seething in your gullet.)
As a class, the conifers share many medicinal uses. When applied externally, preparations of bark, pitch or sap alleviate a wide array of dermatologic ills, including abrasions, lacerations, burns, bruises, psoriasis, athlete’s foot and rashes due to prickly heat, chapped skin or allergic dermatitis. Native Americans used infusions of leaf tips and bark to treat coughs, colds, fevers, headaches, earaches, sore throats, heart problems, lung congestion, tuberculosis, ulcers, arthritis, indigestion, sexually transmitted diseases and cancer. Various conifer species have been employed as washes for making infants thrive, as contraceptives following childbirth, and as laxatives, diuretics, eyewashes, blood purifiers and abortifacients. Young aboriginal women used leaf-tip or bud infusions as a beauty wash, and drinking the tea was reputed to keep adolescent girls youthful. Conifers were also believed to confer protection from sorcerers – although they apparently didn’t protect young men from the wiles of their female companions.
While modern research hasn’t yet confirmed Pinaceae’s
myriad beneficial properties, several studies hint that a thousand years’ worth of empirical data is probably based in fact. For example, arabinogalactan from larch trees has demonstrated immunostimulatory properties in a handful of clinical trials. A study published in the September 2010 issue of Nutrition Journal
showed that larch arabinogalactan, when compared to placebo, increased the antibody response in healthy volunteers who were injected with pneumococcal vaccine. And a January 2011 Current Eye Research
study revealed that larch arabinogalactan stimulated proliferation and reorganization of injured corneal cells, suggesting that it might be valuable for treating certain human eye disorders; interestingly, the larch extract exerted this healing effect without the toxic side effects associated with chemicals that are currently used in many eye medications.
Other attributes of the Pinaceae
family have garnered some interest in the scientific community, too. For instance, the same proanthocyanidins that protect conifers from fungal infections (cedar’s resistance to rot is legendary) could serve as the basis for potent antifungals in human medicine. In addition, these compounds have demonstrated powerful antioxidant, immunomodulatory and cardioprotective properties in cell culture and animal studies.
All things considered, Mr. Gibbons may have been onto something 40 years ago – although he was simply standing on the shoulders of others who had gone before him. Once again, the admonition to “let food be thy medicine” seems apropos. Sources
- JK Udani, BB Singh, et al. Proprietary arabinogalactan extract increases antibody response to the pneumonia vaccine: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled, pilot study in healthy volunteers. Nutr J. 2010;9:32
- S Burgalassi, N Nicosia, et al. Arabinogalactan as Active Compound in the Management of Corneal Wounds: In Vitro Toxicity and In Vivo Investigations on Rabbits. Curr Eye Res. 2011;36(1):21-28
Alchemilla vulgaris—the “vulgar alchemist”—seems a harsh handle for a plant whose common name, Lady’s mantle, derives from its similarity to the scalloped folds of the Virgin Mary’s cloak. Perhaps the early botanists who classified Lady’s mantle were more taken with the herb’s reputed magical properties, or they may have been enamored of its ability to gather dew within its furrowed leaves and seemingly transform it into diamonds. Ancient wizards, in their quest for the secrets they believed would transmute base metals into gold, used “celestial water” captured from Alchemilla leaves to catalyze their magical formulas.
Irrespective of its origins or mystical attributes, Lady’s mantle is among the most attractive and hardy of herbs. Representatives of Alchemilla (there are about 300 species) are equally at home on high, mist-draped mountaintops, on moist grasslands above the Arctic Circle, or tucked into flower beds across suburban America. Indeed, owing to its popularity as an ornamental bedding plant, much of Alchemilla’s medicinal history has slipped into obscurity.
Rich in tannins, glycosides, and salicylates, Lady’s mantle is a first-class botanical astringent. Seventeenth-century herbalist and physician Nicholas Culpeper called Lady’s mantle “one of the most singular wound herbs,” referring to its ability, when applied as a poultice, to staunch bleeding from injuries and assuage the heat in inflamed ulcers. Alchemilla is used as a douche for leucorrhea, and it can be taken internally to deal with heavy menstrual flow. Since Lady’s mantle also acts as an anti-inflammatory, diuretic, emmenagogue, and vulnerary, it has been used for sore throats, laryngitis, toothache pain, kidney stones, urinary tract infections, hemorrhoids, and itching and ulcerations of the female genital tract. The German Commission E approves Lady’s mantle for stemming the diarrhea associated with acute gastroenteritis (stomach flu).
Use 3 to 9 grams of the leaves, flowers, or rhizomes to make a decoction; prepare an infusion by pouring a cup of boiling water over 2 to 3 teaspoons of dried the dried herb; or take 10 to 30 drops of the tincture 3 to 4 times daily. Pregnant women should not use Lady’s mantle, as it could stimulate uterine contractions.
Lady’s mantle is a fairly carefree plant and will fare well in just about any type of soil in a sunny or partially shaded location. It isn’t particularly drought-tolerant, though, so give it a good drink once or twice weekly. The plants should be sheared back after their chartreuse flowers have bloomed to revitalize the leaves and prevent reseeding—although a broad expanse of Alchemilla could be just the thing for an aspiring wizard.
If you take your time and allow your senses to awaken, a springtime stroll through the woods can be every bit as enlightening as a visit to your local library (and a hundred times more productive than spending an afternoon surfing the Internet): fiddleheads unfurl from the duff beneath your feet, tree frogs creak from hidden runnels, flickers plumb nearby stumps for grubs, geese chuckle overhead…
…and—at least in the undisturbed meadows of the American West—a profusion of delicate, yellow flowers nod tentatively in the gentle breezes that meander along the forest floor.
Early each spring, glacier lilies (Erythronium grandiflorum
) chase the vanishing snow from moist, open or semi-open areas at middle to alpine elevations from southwestern Canada to New Mexico. These are perennial plants with deep, bulb-like corms, a pair of narrow, bright green leaves, and a solitary blossom atop a leafless stem. Their six lemon-yellow petals are strongly recurved, and—depending on the subspecies—the stamens are white, yellow, brown, or purplish.
Glacier lilies (some people prefer a less boreal-sounding name, such as dogtooth violet or fawn lily) provide forage for deer, elk, bears, and rodents. Several Native American tribes consumed glacier lily corms, which are edible raw but are sweeter (and easier on the digestive tract) when they're cooked. The corms were also dried and used in trade. The stems and leaves of glacier lilies are also edible, but the corms are more flavorful and nutritious.
Montana tribes mashed or chewed the roots of glacier lilies and applied them to boils and skin sores, and the Okanagan-Colville Indians used the corms to treat colds and other upper respiratory infections. Eclectic physicians of the 19th century prescribed a related species, E. americanum
, for tuberculosis-related lymph node swelling and to relieve peripheral edema, hiccups, hemoptysis (couging blood), and vomiting. (Interestingly, too many fresh corms can actually trigger vomiting.)
While the diminutive and evanescent glacier lily may not hold a prominent place in your herbal armamentarium, it’s another of those useful and oh, so attractive botanicals that should be tucked into that corner of your brain reserved for “rarities.” Sources
- Personal Notes, Stephen Christensen
- Western Medicinal Plants and Herbs. Glacier Lily, Yellow Fawn Lily. Steven Foster and Christopher Hobbs. Houghton Mifflin, 2002